Burning questions for IU football coming out of the 2020 season

One memorable season is in the books.

Now the question is “What’s next?”

For Indiana football, the hope is that a combined 14-7 record over the last two seasons indicates an upward trajectory. But there are significant questions as to what comes next in 2021, and those will begin to be answered in the coming days and weeks.

Here are a few burning questions for the Hoosiers heading into an important offseason.

Who is coming back?

Every year seniors leave and freshmen arrive, as is the natural order of things in college athletics.

But this year isn’t normal.

Because of the pandemic and the shortened seasons that came with it, the NCAA has offered all fall athletes — as it did with spring and winter athletes — an extra year of eligibility. So players who would ordinarily have seen their eligibility run out can come back for the 2021 season.

“Some will, some won’t,” IU coach Tom Allen said after the Outback Bowl. “We’ll know for sure here in the next couple of weeks. Either way, we’re going to love and support them, whatever they feel is best for them and their future. We’ll talk that through with them.”

The senior class is a small but important group for IU. At the top of the list are two receivers, Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor. Both have done enough to at least put themselves on the radar for NFL squads as potential late-round picks. It’s debatable whether an additional year would benefit their pro stock.

Fryfogle, who has developed into an intriguing possession-type receiver, was somewhat under the radar until a breakout campaign in 2020. He was the Big Ten’s receiver of the year, posting the conference’s first-ever back-to-back 200-yard receiving games. Can he further solidify his NFL standing with another year of catching jump balls from Michael Penix Jr.?

Philyor became the 10th player in IU history to reach 2,000-plus career yards, but the Hoosiers do have a graduate transfer arriving, Florida State’s DJ Matthews, who also offers some speed and elusiveness in the slot. Would they want to share that role in 2021?

IU’s offensive line would be especially veteran if center Harry Crider or guard Mackenzie Nworah decided to return. Crider, who was invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl’s virtual events, has a chance to see if he could stick on an NFL roster, but coming back would give him another year as the anchor of the Hoosiers’ offensive line. At the same time, IU has added a Michigan transfer, Zach Carpenter, who can play both guard and center, just like redshirt junior Dylan Powell and redshirt freshman Mike Katic.

While the defense is dominated by juniors and sophomores, it could gain from senior returnees. Jerome Johnson, a first-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle, and Marcelino Ball, an athletic “husky” who had his 2020 taken away by an ACL tear, are both fifth-year seniors. Would they want to stay a sixth year?

At least a couple of players, defensive tackle Jovan Swann and defensive end Mike Ziemba, have alluded to an interest in playing on. Ziemba, a fourth-year senior, posted a video to Twitter on Sunday saying “there’s more to be done” and “it’s time to get back to work.” Swann, a graduate student, wasn’t overly specific, either, but he posted “I’m not giving up on the game, not in that fashion. I have more to give and more to gain.”

In the coming days, these players will sit down with Allen and plot a course. Any that return will only strengthen an already mature roster.

How will Penix progress?

While the focus Saturday was on the field and with Penix’s backup, Jack Tuttle, there was good news regarding IU’s sidelined QB coming out of the Outback Bowl.

Penix’s parents, Takisha and Michael Sr., gave an interview with an ABC affiliate, and the clip featured B-roll of their son walking on IU’s sideline during the game. He’s only a couple of weeks removed from a mid-December ACL surgery, so he appears to be recovering well.

“When he gets back, he’ll show everybody what he’s made of,” Michael Sr. told the ABC station. Takisha added her son should be back for the start of fall camp, echoing what Allen has already said. Michael Penix Jr. is not expected to participate in spring ball in any significant way.

Penix has been through this before. He tore the same ACL his true freshman season, and he suffered a season-ending sternoclavicular joint injury as a redshirt freshman. He gained around 15 pounds this last offseason, hoping an increase in mass would lead to better durability.

Now it’s time to attack another rehab, hoping the injury bug is finally behind him. If Penix can successfully move past those worries, IU’s offense becomes all the more explosive, because the lefty just has an uncanny knack for making passes not a lot of quarterbacks can make.

The question is just how much progress Penix can make physically, and if he can be 100 percent by IU’s opener on Sept. 4 at Iowa.

If there are any setbacks, the Hoosiers do at least have a backup with starting experience in Tuttle. Dexter Williams, a true freshman this season, should have a more typical offseason under his belt going into 2021, and the quarterback room will add depth with four-star Donaven McCulley entering the picture.

But there isn’t a doubt, IU has been at its best with Penix under center. IU is 11-1 over the last two seasons when Penix is the starter at quarterback. He was named second-team All-Big Ten in 2020, even with his season cut short.

All of Hoosier Nation collectively crosses its fingers.

Who will be the DC?

Once again, the Hoosiers head into an offseason with intrigue at a coordinator spot.

Last year, it was the offensive coordinator position, as former tight ends and quarterbacks coach Nick Sheridan replaced now-Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer. Now it’s defensive coordinator Kane Wommack who is moving on to be South Alabama’s head man.

It’s positive that Allen’s program can serve as a springboard for his assistants, which should only make it a more attractive destination when searching for new hires. At the same time, it again raises questions about how the Hoosiers will sustain another switch.

After one year — especially a year like 2020 — it’s hard to broadly assess Sheridan’s performance. Even Sheridan would admit, from time to time, he needed to do a better job of more consistently putting the Hoosiers in a position to succeed. Going from an experienced play-caller like DeBoer to a first-timer, there was bound to be at least some drop-off. But it wasn’t a devastating reduction.

IU’s point-per-game average went from 31.8 under DeBoer to 28.9 under Sheridan, and the latter didn’t have the benefit of a non-conference season.

Can the next person at DC also hold the line? Wommack shepherded his “Swarm D” from young and inconsistent in 2019 to mature and smothering in 2020. The next leader of that unit will have a wealth of returners to work with, including All-Americans Micah McFadden (linebacker) and Tiawan Mullen (cornerback).

There is bound to be continuity between this year’s defense and next year’s, regardless, whether Allen pegs an internal or external candidate, because this is Allen’s 4-2-5 scheme. That’s not changing. It’s just a question of play-calling and game-planning, and what that next person’s brainpower can add.

At the very least, IU doesn’t want to take a step back after leading the nation with 17 interceptions in seven games, as well as a Big Ten-best 25 sacks in eight games.

15 comments

  1. One other aspect of players having a chance at another year is how would it impact up and coming younger players. IU needs to keep younger players improving and become the new stars on the team. It won’t be an easy balance to make but for IU to keep improving each year it is necessary.

  2. Every team in the country, with the exception of perhaps those like Alabama, OSU, Clemson, etc. are going to face the same challenge. But since IU is still “catching up” to the recruiting success of many other programs, this additional year of eligibility benefits schools like IU more than schools who routinely lose 20 to 25 players a year to graduation and/or the NFL Draft.

    I wonder how many of the Seniors playing defense are waiting until the new DC is announced before announcing their decision?

  3. One positive that came from bowl loss vs Ole Miss…The loss to Mississippi should quail a little about T.A. possibilities to go to another program. I would think a hot coach just got cooled a little. Therefore, It secures T.A. at IU.

    1. The loss to Mississippi should quail a little about T.A. possibilities to go to another program.

      Quail….? That’s a fowl suggestion if I ever heard one? You’ll need to quell such a thought.

  4. t, you sound foolish when you argue that none of IU’s QBs were 4-star rated prospects coming out of HS. Here are the facts. If you doubt me, go to the web sites and see for yourself. Rivals rated Tuttle, Penix and McCulley 5.9 and lists them as 4-star recruits. 247 Sports rated Tuttle at .9321 and McCulley at .9097, both 4-star recruits. 247Sports had Penix rated lower at .8749 coming out of High School. You can quibble over whether Rivals, 247Sport or ESPN is the more legitimate rating system for HS prospects, but the facts are that three of the four QBs on IU’s roster next season were rated as 4-star prospects coming out of HS.

  5. It’s the $28 million dollar buyout in Ta’s contract that protects IU from TA being poached right now. But as time passes, the amount of that buyout declines considerably.

  6. V13, I generally agree with you. But every man has his price! And with numerous schools willing to pay head FB coaches $6 million or more per year, we can’t assume TA won’t ever be tempted. Besides, it’s not just about how much TA gets paid. It’s also whether he feels he’s getting the support necessary to build and sustain a winning program. It’s what his compensation budget will be for his assistants and if he can hire and retain good Coordinators and position coaches. It’s the recruiting budget he has to work with. And of course that’s all tied to fan support.

    There’s a great article in SI.com the presents a cautionary tale. It documents the rise and fall of Florida State’s Football program. After winning the National Championship at FSU, Jimbo Fisher tried desperately to get and keep the financial support he felt was necessary to maintain FSU as a National Championship contending FB program. But FSU couldn’t or wouldn’t give him what he needed. After years of frustration and watching his best assistants getting poached, Jimbo began listening to offers from other schools. Finally, Texas A & M gave him an offer he could not refuse, and he left. And now look at what a dumpster fire FSU FB has become. Obviously IU FB has never come close to being as successful as FSU was, and TA is not nearly as accomplished as Jimbo Fisher is (yet). But the principal is the same and it’s all relative. I just hope IU’s administration and key boosters don’t take TA for granted like they did Mallory. I know IU has limits, but they should be doing everything within those limits to minimize the risk of losing TA and the momentum he has created.

  7. Have noted comments on other sites, post Outback. Lots of CTA “needs to clean house”. Don’t think ‘cleaning house’ is needed, but I feel like Sheridan and Hiller have been exposed for their limitations. If they can be upgraded,..then likely a good idea. No gig is safe. Ol’ Doc Holliday at Marshall was even canned after being named C-USA coach of the year and another winning season. If Allen wants to compete at a higher level, he really can’t stay pat with the 2 guys mentioned above. Nothing stays stagnant. You’re either going forward or backward. That also applies to whoever ends up being DC.

  8. t, you are right both need to upgrade their coaching and make the offense better next year. We will see tis off-season what happens and next year how good IU will be. I love the players coming back to play for IU next season and make IU improve even more. I hope whoever doesn’t come back the younger players will step up to be very good.

  9. I can’t believe any Hoosier FB fan is calling for any IU coach to be fired after we just completed one of the best seasons in IU’s history. It’s ridiculous. Young coaches go through learning curves, just like all other professionals. Sheridan is 32 or 33 and he will either learn from his experience and improve, or he will be replaced. But he deserves at least one more season. I’m not saying Hiller is a great O-line coach, but he’s not a bad one either. He was good enough to attract the transfer from Michigan and has developed several linemen who are now on NFL rosters.

    But remember, in the long run, IU FB’s coaching staff will only be as good as TA’s coaching compensation budget allows them to be. Remember, when DeBoer left IU last year, his annual salary was $800,000, and yet there were 45 college coordinators and/or position coaches that were being paid more that DeBoer. There were eight coaches being paid the same amount as DeBoer and eight assistants got paid more that twice what IU was paying DeBoer. Good coaching is expensive.

  10. PO, four years of poor running offense and less than stellar pass blocking needs to be answered. If it isn’t the coaches then it has to be scheme that needs to be changed. I do think coach Sheridan needs another year to really evaluate how good he is calling a game. Coach Hiller has had four years and IU’s OL has been here for four years and IU’s OL haven’t been at B1G levels. We don’t see young OL with several years work improving enough to become starters. I am not saying he should be fired but coach Allen needs to take a hard look to see if it is coaching or scheme that is the problem because IU needs to figure it out to move up in the B1G after this past season. The old saying about you can’t standstill as you improve or get worse. College football is a brutal jungle where it takes the best coaches to achieve a special team and right now the disappointing group on the team is the OL. Defensively IU has seen upgrades at all levels which shows what coaching and scheme can do. Money is only one aspect of the issue with coaches although a major aspect.

  11. V13, while we may not be totally satisfied with our OL, they have not been bad. Remember, Hiller is putting guys into the NFL after every season. Crider has a good chance of being the next IU O-linemen drafted. Then you have to ask, “can we make a major upgrade?” Can IU afford the better O-line coaches that are available? If you get an “up and comer,” how long can you keep him? If the candidate to replace Hiller is not a sure thing, it’s better to maintain continuity and keep Hiller, then challenge him to produce better results.

    One way or the other, I’m sure TA is evaluating the performance of every position coach and discussing ways they can improve their performance.

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